I'm not sure I'm the best person to answer but here are my thoughts, with the St Patrick's Bridge competition especially in mind.
"The chances of winning an open competition seem very low, do you:
1) Try to win with an "extreme" or "practical" design
2) Try to be vague or detailed?
3) Develop the concept as a portfolio piece and forget about winning?
4) Forget to mention your an engineer
5) Change my name to Frank Lloyd Calatrava
Questions to ask yourself before entering
1. What will I do if I am shortlisted? Am I happy to fly to Calgary for interview (if not local)? Am I competent / sufficiently resourced / legally qualified to enter a contract for the detailed design if I win?
2. Let's say I spend two weeks on my entry, and I have a 1 in 10 chance of winning. If I enter ten competitions, I'd expect to win one. So having invested 20 weeks of my time for free, how much work should I get out of that single win to make all that investment worthwhile? And how does that change if my odds are only 1 in 100? Is there a better way to spend my time (does the attic need clearing out)?
3. My design will be on public display. Am I happy for smart-arse bloggers to critique it online?
4. Am I in this because I want to win? Because I want it on my CV (although there's probably nothing worse on a CV than a string of competition failures!)? Or because I want to stretch myself?
5. Am I properly qualified, or if not, can I get hold of someone who is (presumably a P.E. licensed to practice in Alberta)?
None of these questions should rule out an entry, but it's certainly worth thinking about before taking the plunge.
How to compete
1. If at all possible, visit the site. Understand the landscape. Talk to the locals. Look for unexpected opportunities. Get a feel for the character of the place.
2. Understand the politics. In Calgary, there will be very strong pressure for local firms to be shortlisted. Do you have a local link? There will also be greater demand for public consultation - will your design appeal to the experts or the public? They will be looking both for something that's very different to the Calatrava design, but which will impress the public more - there will be rivalry between CMLC and the City of Calgary. CMLC will want to prove that their competitive procurement route gets a better result.
3. Understand the evaluation criteria (and whether they're real, or whether the promoter will fudge them to get what they really want, which is normal). Calgary has no clear criteria - it's not clear if a cheaper solution will score extra points; there's little reference to the promoter's aspirations, which as written amount to little more than providing "a link". Do they want something iconic? A landmark? Elegant? Low maintenance costs? They don't say any of these things. But I'm sure they want them all. How important is your experience, or brand name? They ask for that information, but don't say how they'll use it in the evaluation. So Calgary leaves you guessing: personally, I think experience will count, and because entries aren't being judged anonymously (as would be normal for an open competition), there is little likelihood the judging will be fair - if they know your reputation, they're bound to take it into account.
4. An average implementation of a unique solution may be better than an excellent implementation of a common solution. "Common" doesn't just mean beam-and-girder, it just means any solution that many entrants are going to think of - if there are twenty self-anchored suspension bridges with a single mast on the island, what's the chance that yours is the best version?
5. Is it really a bridge that they want? Or is a sculpture (most Calatravas)? A piece of the landscape? Or just a means of getting from A to B (in which case - why not a ferry? Or a cable car?) In Calgary, I'd say they want the crossing; they also want the sculpture; and they have CAN$25m that they have to spend or they will lose it. Can you give them value by using some of the money for other facilities that they couldn't otherwise afford - additional paths; a viewpoint facility on the island etc?
6. Has the brief imposed unnecessary restrictions? Does it really matter if the bridge deck drains into the river? Why can't the deck be timber? Why not two bridges (for CAN$25m, they could have several bridges at this site quite easily)?
7. Who are the judges and what will they want? Do they have any pet hates or likes? Normally the key question, but CMLC don't tell us who they'll be, so insiders may have an advantage. But I'd assume CMLC head honcho Chris Ollenberger (a qualified geotechnical engineer) will call the shots; there will be engineering advisers, possibly from Stantec, who have a vested interest (why would they want a bridge which will overshadow their own Peace Bridge project?); almost certainly some form of community representative. To keep the professionals happy, the design must be at least superficially rational from an engineering perspective. But the community will want something that's visually easily comprehensible. Are they looking for modesty, or for the kind of flash and bang that shows they're getting their money's worth?
8. Assume the judges will spend a maximum of five minutes looking at your entry in the initial run-through. Possibly not even that. The presentation board is 100% key. It must be professionally presented, with high-quality digital renders, and clear and quickly comprehensible to a lay person. It must look like an architect's presentation, not an engineer's drawing. The submission must have enough detail to satisfy the rules and as little as possible beyond that, especially as if shortlisted you will need to address all the points you had no time to consider at Step One.
9. Is there scope to diss the other likely designs? I'm normally quite keen on this, it's usually possible to predict popular solutions and point out in the technical submission why they are the wrong answer. Just bear in mind that hardly anyone will read the technical submission.
10. Don't waste time on anything other than the simplest engineering calculations. The chance of winning doesn't repay the investment of time. Having said that, don't design anything you don't feel confident you could make work at a later stage, somehow. For Calgary, entrants need to finalise their concept within the next week, spend two weeks on the digital images, a couple of days to dash off the technical report and other data required, and that still leaves time to get it in the post by the deadline.
11. Design something you've never designed before. Never done a suspension bridge? Do one now. The basic equations for an unstiffened suspension bridge (or a stressed ribbon) can be written on a single line - how hard can it be?
12. Above all, have a good idea! An okay idea won't cut it in an open contest, it has to be striking, memorable, very well-presented, and able to stand out when surrounded by dozens of others, many of which will have all these qualities while being completely unbuildable or maintainable. Spend time thinking through different concepts. Spend time not thinking about them, so that the back-brain can do its job. Inspiration is unlikely to come from studying the designs of others - that just provides knowledge to use as a resource and test possibilities against. In my experience, there's a lot of hard effort put into working through concepts, developing them in different directions, but inspiration usually comes suddenly and unexpectedly.
Note this section is headed "how to compete", not "how to win". With an open competition like this, the odds are so low of winning that there's clearly no guaranteed strategy. With a smaller invited competition, there is a good chance of knowing who the other entrants are, and what they might enter, so the tactics may differ.
Some predictions for St Patrick's Bridge, Calgary
1. Calatrava will not enter.
2. There will be at least 100 entries.
3. At least two shortlisted entries will be from locals.
4. The winner will be a collaborative engineer/architect team; there's no chance of one alone winning.
5. This bridge will be built within budget; the Peace Bridge will not.
I'd be very interested in other opinions on this post!